CALEXICO — As talks continue with Calexico officials about bringing the area’s two outdoor swap meets up to code, discussions seem to be unfolding much differently between principals involved with closed Santo Tomas than they are with the ownership of Las Palmas.
Las Palmas officials reportedly
met to fill in city officials on the progress of a major renovation and
expansion already under way. It would not only bring the swap meet up to code
but add amenities, a Calexico City Council member said.
Meanwhile, Calexico and
Santo Tomas representatives remained tight-lipped about talk both sides have
previously said may lead to the re-opening of the marketplace, where much work
is needed to address dozens of alleged code violations. There continues to be
disagreement on how to get there, officials have said.
To further complicate
matters with Santo Tomas, city management was informed Feb. 5 that Calexico and
Santo Tomas operators have been named co-defendants in a lawsuit filed in
county Superior Court by 18 former vendors. It alleges damages and loss of
property from a December 2018 fire.
Santo Tomas and Las
Palmas are both in violation of various building and fire codes that were put
under a microscope throughout 2019 when some of those violations were alleged
to have contributed to the Dec. 8, 2018, fire at Santo Tomas.
That ultimately led Santo
Tomas owners to permanently close in summer 2019 rather than make the repairs.
The city also passed a
new ordinance in September that spelled out basic operating requirements that
have made demands on all swap-meet operators. Those demands have not been
Big Plan for Las Palmas
Work is already underway
for a total “redo” of Las Palmas by owner Brenda Martinez. It is scheduled to
culminate with a grand re-opening event and concert in September, City Council
Member Morris Reisen said recently.
Martinez has not
responded to several requests for comment.
“They (Las Palmas) have
an action plan to redo the whole place,” Reisen said during an interview Feb.
8, one day after Martinez and a group of engineers and real estate advisers she
employs met with city officials in city hall.
The meeting was to let
the city know what was planned for the site and that Martinez would be done
with all the work, including addressing existing alleged code violations, by
September, Reisen said. About a dozen people attended the meeting, including
the city manager, assistant city manager, the fire chief and two council
members, and himself, he added.
Among the plans for the
business include resurfacing the enter swap-meet area, which is now dirt,
adding a grassy area for soccer and building an outdoor stage area for
concerts, Reisen said.
The total cost of the
project is reportedly $500,000 to $700,000 to be paid for by Martinez, Reisen
said in separate interview Feb. 10.
Reisen added city
officials gave Martinez the go-ahead last week to do the work, although Reisen
said some work already started.
Some of the work that
would both address alleged code violations and demands of a new swap-meet
ordinance enacted in September involve Martinez adding fire-retardant canopies
to all outdoor shopping areas. There would also be fire-proof containers to store all
vendor merchandise left on the premises overnight, Reisen said.
Las Palmas, as of summer
2019, was in violation of a reported 18 building and fire code violations,
based on a February 2019 inspection by the Calexico Fire Department.
The Santo Tomas blaze was
caused by faulty electrical wiring that ignited items stored overnight in
vendor booths, Calexico officials said.
Las Palmas and city
officials have largely had a good relationship through much of the talk about
code violations and while the city was drafting its new swap-meet ordinance,
officials have said. Martinez has worked with the city to either correct the
violations or set timelines as to when they would be addressed, officials added.
For many years, Las
Palmas had been the smaller of the two outdoor swap meets in the city when
Santo Tomas was operating. However, Las Palmas is now the only outdoor swap
meet in the city and has reportedly grown with the addition of some former
Santo Tomas vendors.
Las Palmas is open six
days a week, with its busiest day still considered Wednesdays. It is closed
Calexico hasn’t given up
on trying to convince Santo Tomas owners and operators to re-open the
40-plus-year-old business at 1102 V.V. Williams Avenue, but it’s not clear
where negotiations stand.
City officials, both in
city hall and among the council members, and representatives of Santo Tomas’
owners and operators, the C.A. Martinez family (no relation to Brenda Martinez
of Las Palmas), and a group of former Santo Tomas vendors have agreed to not
speak publicly about the talks, Calexico Mayor Bill Hodge said recently.
Reisen said Feb. 8 that
all he can say is Santo Tomas wants to reopen the business but both sides have
agreed to keep quiet until “everything is set in stone.”
Santo Tomas officials are
still “distrustful” of the city and think the city forced its closure, Reisen said. Part of the discussions
have been about regaining trust, he added.
“We don’t want to jinx
anything,” Hodge said Feb. 6. “We’ve got hope there. It’s best to keep working
on it behind closed doors and take the appropriate time before we become more
Most of the meetings the
city has had with Santo Tomas have reportedly been outside city hall and
involved Assistant City Manager Miguel Figueroa to some degree. But mostly it
has been Hodge and Reisen meeting with Santo Tomas general manager Juan Carlos
Gonzalez and others representing the vendors.
The last time the sides
met was Jan. 30, Hodge said.
When Santo Tomas closed,
there were reportedly more than 50 alleged building and fire code violations
that still needed to be addressed. These violations prompted the city to sue
Santo Tomas to stop operations in early 2019.
mediation, the city dropped its suit and allowed Santo Tomas to reopen on a
limited basis in the spring. However, the company decided to close for good due
to disputes over bringing the facilities up to code and impending regulations
from the new ordinance, which at the time of the closure had not been approved.
In late December, a Santo
Tomas spokesperson said a requirement to provide fireproof containers for all
vendor merchandise left on site overnight was a “dealbreaker” for the company
in re-opening. The spokesman, general manager Gonzalez’s son, Carlos Gonzalez,
said at the time that unless the city relented on that requirement the Martinez
family would not re-open the swap meet.
Carlos Gonzalez did not
respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
City Manager David Dale
has said he would not relent on that requirement out of respect for safety, but
if the council voted to change the ordinance, so be it. The council has not had
anything remotely connected to the ordinance on the public agenda since Dale
said that Dec. 22.
faulty electrical wiring was the cause of the
2018 fire that destroyed from one-quarter to one-third of the vendor
stalls at Santo Tomas. The fire was fueled by vendors’ merchandise stacked and
stored behind chain-link fences and left overnight, Dale and the fire chief
The requirement in the
ordinance to remove that merchandise and store it in fireproof containers
everyday was in direct response to the fire.
Although not much
different than an earlier claim for damages rejected by the city in June 2019,
an attorney representing a group of former Santo Tomas vendors has filed suit
in county Superior Court over lost property and damages from the fire.
Like the claim, the
complaint, which was served on the city Feb. 5 by Walter Clark Legal Group of
Rancho Mirage, alleges the city knowingly allowed dangerous conditions at the
swap meet to persist even though the city knew the property was in violation of
The suit also alleges the
city did not provide ample warning to the claimants of the dangerous
conditions, and that the city knowingly allowed fire hazards at the premises,
failing to take reasonable steps to protect claimants.
What’s different with the
suit is that Santo Tomas is now named as a co-defendant, with plaintiffs
seeking compensatory relief from the city and GM Juan Carlos Gonzalez as an
individual and Santo Tomas Inc. as an entity. Plaintiffs are 18 individually
named former vendors.
The suit does not ask for
a specific dollar amount in damages other than to say, “over $25,000.”
The case is due in
front of Judge Jeffrey Jones on June 15 for a case-management hearing.